Coronavirus outbreak keeps Arizona schools closed until at least mid-April

Coronavirus outbreak keeps Arizona schools closed until at least mid-April

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Schools chief Kathy Hoffman says online instruction cannot comprehensively replace classroom learning. “There are families that don’t have a computer or don’t have internet.”

Arizona children won’t be going back to school until mid-April at the earliest.

In a new directive, Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman have decided to extend by two more weeks the coronavirus-related closure that began March 16. The pair said they believe keeping campuses closed until at least April 10 is necessary to be sure that conditions are safe for students to return.

Gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said that since the original two-week closure was announced, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come out with new protocols to protect health. He said following these protocols would preclude schools from reopening as scheduled on March 30.

But Hoffman said the question of spreading COVID-19 among classmates is only part of the issue. There’s also the question of who would teach the children.

“Staffing would be very challenging at this time,” she said. And then there’s the possibility that teachers could spread the virus among themselves in meetings.

Whether schools will reopen before the end of the school year remains an open question.

“Our goal is to get kids in the classroom as soon as possible,” Ptak said. “We believe that’s the best place for them. We’re going to continue to reassess the situation in order to safely do that.”

Hoffman said she also intends to “keep monitoring and evaluating the situation.” But she told Capitol Media Services that it would not be the end of the world if schools did not reopen before the summer break.

She pointed out that this is the beginning of testing season.

“This is the time of the year when there would be a lot of reviewing and strengthening those foundational skills to get ready for the state tests,” Hoffman said. “And during the testing window there typically is not any instruction. So if I had to choose for a quarter for this to happen this is honestly the best quarter because the majority of the instruction has already been completed.”

That doesn’t mean there will be no learning involved if schools remain shuttered.

Legislation approved unanimously Thursday, March 19, by the Arizona House and Senate sets up procedures for school districts to provide educational opportunities for students through the end of the semester. Options include online instruction, sending home assignments and even having staffers read with younger students over the phone.

Ptak said the governor is looking forward to signing the measure.

Hoffman, however, said she’s not optimistic that this plan is going to make up for the lack of actual classroom instruction.

“To be completely honest, I know that kids are not going to learn in the same way and learn as much as they would if they were in our classrooms with our teachers,” she said. And Hoffman said the fact remains that not everyone is going to have access to interactive online instruction.

“We know across the state that there are families that don’t have computers or don’t have internet,” she said. “There’s going to be significant challenges in trying to provide equal opportunity for kids to access learning.”

And that doesn’t even consider students with disabilities and other special needs.

“How are they going to learn?” Hoffman asked. “These are going to be immense challenges.”

Ptak acknowledged that the decision to delay reopening schools for two more weeks comes more than a week before classes were slated to resume.

But he said the governor believes it’s important to get scheduling information into the hands of parents as soon as possible to allow them to plan.

With resumed classroom instruction looking ever less likely, Hoffman said she is focused elsewhere.

“What we have been prioritizing in recent weeks is, first and foremost, making sure that kids are fed,” she said. “Having access to food is important.”

Hoffman said she also wants to be sure that school staffers will continue to be paid.

That problem appears to be taken care of with the new legislation awaiting Ducey’s signature. It provides continued state aid to schools to keep paying staff — both instructional and support — as long as schools continue educational programs in whatever alternative format they can.

Still, there are other issues.

One is that extended closure — or scrapping the rest of the semester — leaves no opportunity for testing students to see what they’ve learned for the year.

Those standardized tests also are important to schools, as they are graded on their performance and improvement. And there also are financial benefits in the form of additional state aid.

“Everything has to be figured out in a different way,” Hoffman said. “So we’re just taking it day by day.”

Hoffman said her department is working to help educators be “as creative as possible” in finding ways to continue providing instruction given the unique situation created by the pandemic.

“But there’s no way we could achieve what we could in a typical school year,” she said.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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